UCLA played in the College World Series in 2010 and 2012 before winning it all in 2013. That is three times in four years. Just when we were starting to think this would become standard practice, the Bruins came down to earth in a big way last year, failing to reach the postseason for the first time since 2009. But last year's injuries lead to this year's experienced squad.
We have talked in the football discussions about the importance of recruiting (the sum of the individual parts) and putting a system in place which maximizes collective success (the whole). In football, we have a situation where in 2014 we wound up with the whole being less than the sum of the individual parts, as stumbles during the season led to a consolation prize Alamo Bowl game.
In basketball, we have a situation where the whole is clearly less than the sum of the individual parts. And with the self-inflicted recruiting issues thanks to #daddyball, the sum of the individual parts doesn't look all that promising down the road either.
That is why it is so refreshing to talk baseball. In Coach Savage, we have a leader with a system. And the whole is consistently greater than the sum of the individual parts, last year notwithstanding. Coach Savage stresses pitching and defense. And in college baseball, with the BBCOR bats, that is the key to success. In an attempt to ramp up power production at the college level, the seams are being lowered, although not to the same level as professional ball. Whether this actually helps power hitters remains to be seen. But even with that, solid pitching and solid defense should continue to carry the day.
Here is Coach Savage in Baseball America's preseason preview-
“The staple of our program is our pitching and defense,” Savage said. “We know that that’s how you get to Omaha and that’s how you win in Omaha.
The Friday starter, as was the case last year, will be junior James Kaprielian. Kaprielian is on the Golden Spikes preseason watch list for the best player in amateur baseball. Last year, Kaprielian was 7-6 with a 2.29 ERA, and led the conferene in strikeouts. Don't let the win-loss record deceive you. In Friday night games with Kaprielian on the mound, the Bruins held the opposition to three or fewer runs 12 times in 15 games. That should translate to a much better win-loss record. MLB.com lists Kaprielian as the 23rd selection in the 2015 projected MLB draft. As a freshman, Kaprielian was the setup pitcher for David Berg. He pitched in three of the five UCLA games at the CWS, not allowing a run or a hit and striking out three in three innings.
The other weekend starters should be junior Cody Poteet and senior Grant Watson. Poteet was the Sunday starter last season, and was 3-5 with a 4.46 ERA. As a freshman, Poteet was the midweek starter, with a record of 4-4 and a 4.69 ERA as a starting pitcher. I remember in a Pac-12 telecast last season that the commentator (Karros?) noted that Poteet and Watson were particularly hurt by UCLA's downturn on defense in 2014, as they are both contact pitchers (in contrast to Kaprielian, who is a strikeout pitcher).
Watson was the Saturday starter last season, and was 4-9 with a 3.80 ERA. As the Sunday starter in 2013, Watson was solid with a 9-3 mark and a 3.01 ERA. And as the midweek starter in 2012, Watson was 9-2 with a 4.45 ERA. As part of the weekend staff on the 2013 CWS championship team, Watson was the winning pitcher in game 3 (which sent the Bruins to the championship round), pitching six scoreless innings. He also won the final game of the Los Angeles regional, pitching seven scoreless innings in the win over USD. Let's hope that Watson can return to form, and that Poteet can also step up big.
The Bruins return all four starting pitchers from last season, and that includes midweek starter sophomore Grant Dyer. Last year, Dyer was 5-5 as a starting pitcher with a 4.09 ERA. He will pushed by freshman Griffin Canning, who turned down the Rockies (38th round) to come to UCLA.
As good as the starting pitching will hopefully be, the bullpen will probably be the strength of the team. Two words- David Berg. Berg was drafted in the 17th round by the Rangers after the 2014 season, but did not sign. Baseball America had tabbed UCLA as one of their eight favorites for Omaha immediately after the season ended (very early look). And the Bruin chances jumped from there with the return of Berg. Berg joins Kaprielian on the Golden Spikes preseason watch list. He is a three time All-Conference selection, and holds the NCAA single season record for saves (24), set in 2013. In that same season, he tied the NCAA record for appearances (51). Last year, as the team faltered, Berg's save stats also went down. He had 11 saves, and was 3-2 with a still stellar 1.50 ERA. In 2013, in addition to the 24 saves and 51 appearances, Berg had a 7-0 record with a 0.92 ERA and was the 1st team All-American closer. He had three saves in the CWS. As a freshman, Berg was 5-3 with a 1.46 ERA in 50 games. In 2013, the Bruins were 41-0 when leading after seven innings. Two words- David Berg.
The UCLA pen includes more than Berg. Grant Dyer could see action in the pen as he did last year in addition to his midweek starts. Redshirt sophomore Nick Kern returns, having pitched in 33 games in 2014. He was 1-1 with three saves and a 4.98 ERA. Redshirt sophomore Tucker Forbes could also be in the mix. And redshirt sophomore Hunter Virant is back from a season-ending 2014 injury, to add a left-handed arm out of the pen.
On offense, the loss of Shane Zeile, all Pac 12 catcher, leaves a big hole. But the return of Kevin Kramer, who missed the 2014 season, is huge. Here is what Coach Savage said about Kramer in the Baseball America preview-
“He changes everything,” Savage said. “He just has a major presence at shortstop. . . . He’s got the ability to hit and hit with a little power. He’s an offensive, lefthanded-hitting shortstop, and the last one of those we had, really, was Brandon Crawford. We think he’s a high-end player.”
Kramer was the starting third baseman on the 2013 championship team, and will slide over to shortstop in 2015. Kramer was second on the team with a .278 batting average. He went 2-2 with a run scored and an RBI in the championship game in Omaha. 2014's loss is definitely 2015's gain.
Junior Trent Chatterton was the starting shortstop last season, and will slide over to second base this year. He had a solid batting line last year- .291/.371/.339. As a freshman, Chatterton started 25 games at second base for the CWS champions, and batted .257. Incoming freshman Nick Valaika will push Chatterton for playing time at second base. Nick clearly has solid bloodlines, as the younger brother of Pat Valaika, who starred on the 2013 CWS team.
Christoph Bono returns in center field for his redshirt junior season. He was the usual right field starter in 2014, and is solid in the field. As a freshman, he appeared in every postseason game for the Bruins CWS team, normally as a defensive replacement.
Ty Moore is the returning left fielder, and looks to lead the offense in 2015 along with Kramer. He was solid in 2014, with a batting line of .294/.375/.417. Kramer followed that up with a Cape Cod All-Star season last summer, batting .323. He made 19 starts, mostly in left, as a freshman on the 2013 CWS team.
Sophomore Luke Persico moves from second base to first base for 2015. As a freshman, he batted .246 as the starting second baseman.
Kort Peterson, another sophomore, should be the starting right fielder. After limited action as a freshman, he had a breakout summer, hitting .344 in the West Coast League.
Sophomore Brett Stephens will also be pushing for playing time in the outfield, and at DH. He started 13 games in right and 11 as DH last year.
Freshman Sean Bouchard is the expected starting third baseman in 2015. He is part of a very solid freshman class, which also includes Canning and Valaika as leading candidates for serious playing time. Bouchard was a West Coast League all-star last summer.
Junior Darrell Miller (Reggie's nephew) and redshirt junior Justin Hazard will vie for the starting catcher position. Hazard has the edge in experience, starting eight games last season when Shane Zeile was being given a breather behind the plate. He made the most of his opportunities, batting .344.
The offense did not help the win-loss record last season. This year should be a different story, particularly with the return of Kevin Kramer. There is loads of experience on the field, along with the infusion of talent from the freshmen, particularly Bouchard and Valaika.
But again, it should come down to pitching and defense for the Bruins in 2015. And in the world of college baseball, there is nobody I would rather have leading the team, and putting UCLA in a position to win through fundamentals, than Coach Savage.
Go Bruins !!